Fisher: What makes a family?

Posted by Patty Fisher on

"Sociologist Brian Powell studies families. He researches questions like: Are children raised by older parents different from those raised by twentysomethings? Are kids better off with Mom or Dad after a divorce? Does the number of kids in a family or whether they are adopted determine how they will turn out as adults?

"When the freedom to marry debate began to heat up nearly a decade ago, the Indiana University professor wondered about children raised by same-sex couples. Would Americans define those households as 'families'? And how would the public perception of gay couples affect their kids?

"'Imagine you are a child,' he told me on the phone, 'and you are in the situation where people say your parents aren't really your parents. What are the implications of hearing people say your parents are condemned to hell?'

"What makes a family?

"Powell and his colleagues surveyed more than 2,300 people across the country over seven years. In their report, Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans' Definition of Family, they say that the number of Americans who define gay and lesbian couples with children as 'families' has grown steadily between 2003 and 2010, from 54 to 68 percent.

"The study, published last week by the Russell Sage Foundation along with new data gathered this spring, drew a flurry of media attention. Gay-rights proponents focused on the findings that Americans favor marriage equality by a slim margin and that the strongest acceptance of gay families comes from people younger than 30, tomorrow's opinion leaders. And since 2003, there has been a 10 percent jump in the number of people who say they have a gay friend or relative. Apparently it's easier to make assumptions about strangers than people we know.


"A finding virtually overlooked in the discussion is the one I find most interesting -- and one that challenges the stereotype of religious people as opposing gay rights.

"Nature or nurture?

"What makes us gay, straight or bisexual? Is sexuality determined by genes, upbringing, the influence of friends -- or is it God's will? While more people surveyed said genes were responsible, those who said God determines sexuality were nearly as likely to include gay couples with children in their definition of family as those who point to science.

"People who chose parenting or other factors were least likely to accept gay families.

"Powell was surprised at first to see the scientific and religious responses so closely aligned. 'But as soon as I saw the data, I thought, 'Of course. It makes perfect sense.''

"If sexuality is learned behavior, he said, then gay parents could 'recruit' their children into the ranks, as freedom to marry foes warn. But if sexuality is out of our control, either because it's in our DNA or in God's plan, then how can we discriminate against gays and lesbians, or their children?

"The survey showed an encouraging trend: Since 2003, those who say parents influence their children's sexuality has dropped from 25 to 15 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage who chose genetics increased from 37 to 45 percent. And those who say God is in charge hovered between 17 and 18 percent."

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